My Pop Life #111 : Heroes & Villains : The Beach Boys

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Heroes & Villains   –   The Beach Boys

I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost & gone & unknown for a long long time…

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This extraordinary creation was one of the songs on The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, one of the handful of LPs in our council house in Sussex in the mid 70s.  The album pulled together all the big singles, and had a couple of interesting choices including this song, which we also had on 45rpm Capitol Records black label 7-inch from 1967 when it was released.  My mum must have bought it – I was 10 years old in ’67.

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Back in those days, The Beach Boys were a chart-pop act for me, even when Simon and I hitch-hiked around the USA in the summer of 1976 the great discovery was their greatest hits LP Endless Summer which contained songs I hadn’t heard before like Be True To Your School and the exquisite jewel Girls On The Beach.   I had no interest or awareness in their LPs until I got to college later in 1976 and my girlfriend Mumtaz had the LP Holland from 1973.  I think Surf’s Up (1971) was the next Beach Boys LP I was aware of, during the LSE days, but they remained a singles band for me apart from those two exceptions.   Pet Sounds you ask ?  Didn’t hear it – in full – until the early 1990s when Jenny and I were living in Los Angeles.    Perhaps it was because they are the quintessential LA band that I bought the box-set Good Vibrations in 1993 in Amoeba Records – an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure – and played it endlessly due to the immense discoveries thereon – including the Pet Sounds songs.  Featured image

The 1966 LP Pet Sounds is for another post – but for now I’ll simply acknowledge it as an extraordinary piece of music – a deep, rich, carefully arranged and orchestrated work of delicate beauty, terrible sadness & infinite fascination.  It was Beach Boy’s head honcho and songwriter Brian Wilson’s response to hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, an inspirational leap into the studio and the possibilities of playing pop music in a completely different way.   The Beatle’s responded with Sgt Pepper,  itself influenced by Pet Sounds, but while they were recording Pepper, Brian Wilson was working on his own follow-up to the Pet Sounds album.   One of the problems for The Beach Boys was that Pet Sounds hadn’t shifted large numbers of units, and even today it is considered complex and less obvious than most of the music of 1966.

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Brian salvaged his pure pop credentials with the single Good Vibrations in October ’66 which outsold the Beatles and won Single Of The Year in all the polls.  This pop rivalry was pushing the respective songwriters to unheard-of peaks of creativity.  Good Vibrations was recorded at four different studios in Los Angeles and endlessly polished before release – but it is an undoubted masterpiece which was Brian Wilson’s first installment on the Pet Sounds follow-up LP – to be called “Smile”.    The album never came out.   But the second single Heroes & Villains did – and it is another towering slice of baroque harmony pop which goes where no 7″ single has gone before.   Apparently the bigwigs at Capitol Records in Hollywood weren’t impressed with it (??) and the start of Brian’s great mental decline can be measured from this song.   Which kind of makes this a peak moment in 1967.

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I’ve always been obsessed with Heroes & Villains.   Jimi Hendrix called The Beach Boys ‘psychedelic barbershop‘, and some people took that as an insult.   But it applies here.   The vocal arrangement is second-to-none in a pop milieu.   It sounds impossibly complex, but the Beach Boys would happily sing it live.   They had a natural blend – three brothers and a cousin plus one mate – and in a live setting they could pull off the most beautiful layered harmonies either acapella or rockin’ out.  The 1993 Good Vibrations box-set though had something else going on – at least 3 other songs called “Heroes & Villains” with different words, different tempos, different arrangements, little pieces of music using parts of the song like strands of sound, stunning piano shapes, harpsichord modulations, vocal experiments, percussive expressions, doo-wop, strings, animal noises, hand-claps, swoons, cantinas, laughs, a whole universe of sound.  A series of clues.  This was like a suite of songs all with the same title.  It’s just a little bit mental.  The final release of SMiLE in 2011 had over 30 tracks called Heroes & Villains.

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Indulgent ?  LSD ?  Genius  ?  Or just unable to settle – a spasm in D minor which couldn’t be resolved.  Probably all of these.  Brian Wilson was mentally disintegrating as he was writing his greatest work, and the pressure to compete with Sgt Pepper, the lack of support from other band members and the record company, and Brian’s own inability to shape the endlessly brilliant pieces of music he was giving birth to into a coherent whole meant that the SMiLE project was finally ditched in May 1967.   It wouldn’t surface again until 2004 when I saw the Brian Wilson band playing it live onstage at The Royal Festival Hall in London – a world premiere.  I went to see it a further five times that week.  It is clearly a masterwork in the pop medium, but apparently, isn’t as it was originally intended.  Sadly no-one can remember what was originally intended least of all Brian himself.  My own theories are centred on this song, it was clearly a musical thread which was to run throughout the work, but don’t forget that in those days all tape was analog and pieced together one part at a time – not like today’s digital world where we can shuffle pieces of music at the touch of a click and experiment with what sounds best.  Brian had written and recorded a musical puzzle which no-one could put together.  He spent the first few months of 1967 shaping Heroes & Villains into a reasonably regular pop song, and it remains a high water mark of musical joy.

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Original artwork for the aborted SMiLE LP by Frank Holmes

In September 1967 a Beach Boys album called Smiley Smile was released, with Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on it, and a few survivors of the abandoned project.   It is an average album, a cobbled-together record-company compromise, not a masterpiece, and not a Pet Sounds 2.   It would be 2011 when Alan Boyd and Mark Linnett would finally put together the box-set The Smile Sessions with the Beach Boys approval.  It is everything I hoped it would be, a fitting companion piece to Pet Sounds, and better in many ways, even more adventurous musically  containing humour, American history (care of lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and the masterpiece Surf’s Up – a kind of choral farewell.  Wilson called SMiLE ‘a teenage symphony to God‘ and I can’t better that LSD-drenched description.

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Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love & Dennis Wilson in 1967

When Stephen Wrigley and I formed The Brighton Beach Boys in early 2002 we started with In My Room, Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA.   Joined by Glen Richardson, Adrian Marshall, Charlotte Glasson, Rob Breskal, Rory Cameron and Theseus Gerrard we did our first gig later that year, in the Hanbury Ballroom.   Paul Gunter joined on percussion, Rob departed and Tom Arnold arrived.   Andy Doe joined on French Horn, left and was replaced by Dom Nunns.   We started doing some of the more complex songs.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice.  And Your Dream Comes True.   And – yes : Heroes & Villains.   Glen did all of our vocal arrangements and taught us the notes, and week by painstaking yet thrilling week we pieced the song together.   I sang the lead part – it’s right in my range – and it’s the easiest part – and we wheeled it out one night in a live show.   It brought the house down because it sounds so impossibly complex, Glen’s brilliant arrangement giving us each a specific vocal job.   And the song itself is so thrilling, a rush of words and music.   It was an absolute privilege to perform it each time we played live.

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Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus – Herne Bay 26.08.06

Later on the band would be introduced to beat poet and lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich who wrote a number of songs with Dennis Wilson, and later with Brian too.  Stevie was in England for a mini-tour, and he sat in on a BBB rehearsal then travelled to a gig with us in Herne Bay, Kent, which I’ll save for another post.   But I’ve been friends with Stevie ever since and we always spend time together when I am in Los Angeles.  He is a gentle and lyrical soul with a unique sensitivity to life which he expresses in words and poems.  Featured image

Stevie in Los Angeles 2012

Again I will save Stevie for another post (see My Pop Life #169) but he introduced me to Mark Linnett while Stevie was living in his house in Glendale in 2009-2010.    Stevie also introduced me to other members of the wider Beach Boys family including David Marks, guitarist on the first five LPs, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian’s first wife and her husband Daniel, and also the wonderful Alan Boyd, The Beach Boys’ archivist and the only person that all former and current members actually talk to.   Alan is a beautiful man with a fine collection of vintage celluloid and 1920s pop music and it was he who laboured night and day to put the final 2011 SMiLE Sessions Box-Set together, with Mark Linnett engineering.   He won a totally-deserved Grammy for his pains.   I’ve talked to Alan about the Heroes & Villains conundrum and he agrees that the musical pieces are the cornerstone of SMiLE but the many parts mean that it is impossible to know how to assemble it satisfactorily or otherwise.   Alan has spent more time with this song than anyone since Brian Wilson in 1966-67, and I think it drove him a little bit bonkers trying to piece it all together.   In the end Heroes & Villains takes up a whole side of vinyl on the box-set, its different parts laid out for us to all to hear and make of what we will.   It is astonishing.   Me – I always liked the original single, but Al Jardine always said that the actual original was way better.    I’ll leave you with the Stereo Mix from the 2011 SMiLE Sessions.  It’s a little bit like the one The Brighton Beach Boys used to sing live, and perhaps will again one day…

My Pop Life #110 : Dreams – Joe Walsh

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Dreams   –   Joe Walsh

…off to waste the day plunging headlong…

For some reason it always feels indulgent to write about Lewes Priory school 1970 -75  and my teenage musical passions.  See for example My Pop Life #78 – a eulogy to Blue Öyster Cult.   I’m not embarrassed about any of the music I listened to then – or since – and I deride the notion of ‘guilty pleasures’ when it comes to music, as if there is a canon of excellence that we must worship publicly and then privately enjoy our own rather suspect taste.  The Alan Partridge joke about liking Abba and Wings – because they’re “not cool”.   In this scenario the supposedly “cool” bands are usually skinny white guys playing atonal miserablism.  My taste has widened considerably since 1973 but my enthusiasm for The Velvet Underground (and those they influenced) still hovers around ‘lukewarm’.

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But this song is still an unalloyed joy for me.  The Joe Walsh LP  “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” was released in america on my birthday, June 18th 1973, and three months later in England.  I have no idea from whence it came among my friends, perhaps the opening track Rocky Mountain Way caught somebody’s ear, or perhaps Andy Holmes just went ahead and bought it after sitting on a beanbag with headphones on in Virgin Records at Brighton Clocktower.  Or perhaps I did – but where I got the idea who knows ?  I don’t remember Rocky Mountain Way (Joe Walsh’s most famous song) being played on the radio.  Anyway – there is was, this amusingly-titled LP which acknowledged our new favourite past-time (getting stoned) with a brightly-coloured cover design and a selection of rather brilliant songs.  I associate this whole LP with happiness.  Sitting somewhere rolling a joint on the LP cover, glueing rizlas together, burning hashish  (invariably – grass was very rare in 1973) into little brown worms and sprinkling them evenly among the Golden Virgina, Old Holborn or Players Number Six cigarette broken down.  The music washing over us as we pass the joint among us, people nodding, agreeing on stuff, giggling, being witty and honest.  The best kind of getting high, when there’s simply nothing else to worry about.

Featured imageThere’s a section in the middle :  “she’s easy on my mind…she thinks my jokes are funny, makes me feel fine..” which reminds me of Miriam Ryle whom I started going out with halfway through the lower sixth.  My first love.  She wore Diorella and flower-print dresses.   I think that’s a great lyric, the idea of a girl being “easy on your mind”.   But the lyric also reminds me of my wife now, Jenny, who still laughs at my jokes.  I try to make her laugh every day, and if we’re not having a punch-up I succeed.  Makes me feel fine.

The song is a beautiful homage to being relaxed in a way that seems impossible today.  Having nothing to do.  Sitting on the grass somewhere.  Going for a walk.  Going for a drive, nowhere in particular.  The music has a marvellous lazy laid-back feel, minimal instrumentally but hugely effective and evocative of an endless summer’s day when time seems to stop and allow you to step off for a while.  Where did those days go?

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Joe Walsh’s band at this point were called Barnstorm – they’d done one album previous to this which is also brilliant, called “Barnstorm” and also produced by the great Bill Szymczyk.  How do you pronounce that? Kenny Passarelli played bass. Rocke Grace joined on keys. But Joe Vitale on drums, synths and flute was a particularly important collaborator for Walsh, and wrote and co-wrote some of these songs.  His influence is very musical, as opposed to the rocky flavours of some of the rest of the LP – but to be fair, Joe Walsh has a huge musical palette and always has.   He emerged from various east-coast bands to join The James Gang in 1968, recording three studio LPs with them including the tracks Funk#49, Walk Away, Collage and Ashes The Rain & I.   All tremendous.   After The Smoker You Drink LP, Walsh was asked to join The Eagles and they proceeded to record Hotel California, Walsh sharing guitar theatrics on that song with Don Felder.  I saw this line-up live in 1976 at Wembley Arena, thrilled to bits to be witnessing one of my teen idols live.  They played Rocky Mountain Way and possibly one more (Time Out?) but it was an Eagles concert and so they remain the only two songs I’ve ever seen Joe play of his own.

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However I just bought two tickets to see him at The Beacon Theatre New York City on October 1st 2015.  Unbelievably he is re-united with Joe Vitale for this show. This is a big deal.

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Joe is a hugely likeable person by all accounts – he visits the same AA group in Hollywood as one of my friends – and his other big hit “Life’s Been Good” is testament to his sense of humour about money, fame and success.  As a rock guitarist I don’t think he’s ever been bettered with the sole exception of Jimi Hendrix but like Jimi he also has a gentle lyrical side and a beautiful delicate touch, none more so than on this song, a wistful evocation of plunging headlong into a relaxed endless day where you will do absolutely nothing.  Taking the time for dreams…  

My Pop Life #109 : New Jack Hustler – Ice-T

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I got nothing to lose, much to gain, on my brain I got a capitalist migraine

I gotta get paid tonight, you motherfuckin right…

…go to school ? I ain’t goin’ for it – kiss my ass, bust the cap on the Moet !

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Deep in 1991.  I’ve finished shooting Alien 3 in Pinewood.  The Gulf War is over.  Jenny and I are living in Archway Road, and we’ve holidayed in Positano (My Pop Life #29).  The Channel Tunnel is almost completed.   Tottenham Hotspur have won the FA Cup and Paul Gasgoigne has ruptured his cruciate ligament.  People are going to prison over the Poll Tax, including Labour MPs.   To come : Jenny will play Mediyah in Pecong at the Tricycle Theatre, and I will film The Crying Game in Hoxton and meet David Bowie one night (see My Pop Life 54).   Musically we were at a crossroads – Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit which blew my head off, Massive Attack released Unfinished Sympathy which put it back on, Jenny was hugging Optimistic by Sounds Of Blackness, and we were both digging Seal, Prince and Lenny Kravitz.   Hip hop was at a true crossroads with Gangsta Rap bidding to take over the commercial end of the scene from more ‘conscious’ hip hop acts from the old skool.   Huge sales for Tupac, Biggie and others followed OG Ice T and his role in the film New Jack City which came out in England in August 1991.

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Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)

The scene I’d witnessed in Washington D.C. whilst working on my hip-hop play Sanctuary in 1989 (see My Pop Life 33) was now writ large on the screen with Wesley Snipes in the lead role, Ice-T playing a cop and providing much of the soundtrack.  I’d get to work with Wesley a few hundred years later in Bulgaria on The Shooter – he’s a solid decent-enough guy.  By then (2004)  he was about to go to prison for non-payment of tax.  He still had a loyal and very cool entourage of eleven people.  All of whom depended on Wesley continuing to make movies…

New Jack City was written by Thomas Lee Wright and directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also appeared himself.  We heard about it months before it came out, one of the most anticipated films of 1991.  A hip hop crack gang movie inhabiting the same space as my newest play “The House That Crack Built” which had just been commissioned and then rejected by the BBC (see My Pop Life 61).  It concerned a young man whose father was absent and whose family was about to be evicted from their apartment-above-a-diner in Washington DC.  He decides to sell crack to help his mum which initially works well, but when she becomes addicted and his ambitions make him enemies who are armed and vicious it all goes horribly wrong.  A cliche perhaps, but somewhat inspired by my own adolescence.  Of course all the characters in the play were black.  This was what I had found in DC.  Crack was a new drug, a crystallisation of cocaine and tremendously powerful.   One hit will send you into space.  Users feel powerful and indestructible.  Horrible shit is what it is.  Any illegal drug will be the province of gangsters and underground big business.  In a way the black community in the USA were having their “mafia moment” like the Italians, Irish, and English had done before them.  Their piece of the pie.  America being built on slavery and criminal activity, genocide and gang-war, this is all perfectly normal.  New Jack City had Ice-T playing a New York cop going undercover into Wesley Snipes crack-dealing gang, who were in their turn facing off with another gang for turf and profits.  Pawns in a divide and rule game?

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Russell Wong, Mario  Van Peebles, Judd Nelson, Ice-T

So familiar, but with black faces, pretty new.  Judd Nelson is the only white character, We also meet Bill Nunn, a young Chris Rock, and Allen Payne with Michael Michelle and Russell Wong being stereotypical black woman and asian (techy) man.  It’s Hollywood folks.  But we were all completely thrilled by this new genre becoming so mainstream so quickly.  The result of New Jack Swing – the soul beat of the early 90s – with Blackstreet, Guy and Teddy Riley, singers like Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat – colliding with the new genre of hip-hop and producing stuff like Ice-T’s album OG and Heavy D and The Boyz (see My Pop Life #33) – it was an exciting moment.  Jenny and I completely loved – and still love – the track New Jack Hustler.  It is right up there with the very best moments in hip-hop culture, a monster song.

New Jack Hustler perfectly encapsulates the paradox of black capitalism (like all capitalism it starts with a hustle) empowering the self while spreading fear through the neighbourhood, being a big man while murdering brothers (niggas – of course).   Ice-T’s brilliant rap is both a boast and a warning, his self-awareness of the ghetto contradiction makes this a truly exemplary piece of work.  And it isn’t without humour too, the imaginary impressionable kid gazing up at his gold chains and guns asking “how can I be down?” gets this answer :

What’s up? You say you wanna be down?
Ease back, or muthafucka get beat down
Out my face, fool I’m the illest
Bulletproof, I die harder than Bruce Willis

Got my crew in effect, I bought ’em new Jags
So much cash, gotta keep it in Hefty bags
All I think about is keys and Gs
Imagine that, me workin’ at Mickey D’s

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One of the highlights of the major hip-hop doc ‘The Art Of Rap‘ is the moment when Peruvian-American rapper Immortal Technique raps those very lines at Ice-T as they stand on the New York sidewalk, to both of their amusement.   My old compadre Andy Baybutt shot and directed that film after making a deal with Ice-T that it would be called “An Ice-T film, directed by Ice-T” but c’mon, Andy made it.   Ice chose the characters and conducted the interviews.  He would open his address book and say “come to the corner in 15 minutes, we’re shooting a rap movie” and they’d just shoot the result.  It’s a superb film about how these guys actually put a rap together, and although Missy Elliott should be there, and two or three others, the cast is everyone who matters (and who’s still alive) in the history of rap.

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Ice-T is an interesting dude.  Born Tracy Marrow on the East Coast, he moved to LA after both parents died.  He got his name from being able to recite chunks of black-pimp-turned novelist Iceberg Slim for his schoolmates in Crenshaw High.   Seriously interested in heavy metal he co-founded Body Count a hard rock band in 1991 and their track Cop Killer was hugely controversial.  He’s done reality TV, straight acting, married a swimsuit model ‘Coco Marie‘ and put her on his LP covers, appeared as a regular in Law & Order and run a record label.  I still think this song is his finest hour.  The deceptively smart lyrics contain their own commentary on the ghetto and the way out :

Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?
…Pregnant teens, children’s screams
Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam
You don’t come here much, and ya better not
Wrong move (Bang) Ambulance cot

I gotta get more money than you got
So what, if some muthafucka gets shot?
That’s how the game is played
Another brother slayed, the wound is deep But they’re givin’ us a band-aid
My education’s low but I got long dough
Raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro

Sleep on silk, lie like a politician
My Uzi’s my best friend, cold as a mortician
Lock me up, it’s genocidal catastrophe
There’ll be another one after me – a hustler

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D.J. Aladdin

All mixed by genius turntablist and producer D.J. Aladdin who combines samples from the ubiquitous James Brown (Blues & Pants provides the horn rise), Sly & The Family Stone (the magnificently cracked-out drum sample – my heart pumps nitro – with a break from You Can Make It If You Try), while the guitar twang is sampled from Bobbi Humphrey‘s Jasper Country Man.   The whole piece is like a gangsta manifesto, but dressed up as a cautionary tale and it was the point where I stopped buying hip-hop.  Rappers took the ironies in this song and flattened them out into macho posturing.  A whole generation of kids grew up on guns, hoes, cars, gangs and death and were convinced that they were all cool.  Capitalism won as it usually seems to.

Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that just as the black community started to get organised and angry, spearheaded by figures like Public Enemy, Ice-T and KRS-One, the ghettos were suddenly flooded with cheap weapons and crack cocaine.  The next 15 years were all about black-on-black crime and prison, major labels reaping the big profits.

Ice-T could see it coming.

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Ice-T pointing his fingers at you pretending he has a gun

My Pop Life 108 : Sumer Is Icumen In

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Sumer is Icumen in   (Summer Is A Coming In)  –  traditional

sumer is icumen in ludu sing cucu

bloweth sed and groweth med and springst the wood anew

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summer is a coming in, loudly sing ‘cuckoo’

Seeds blow, meadows grow, the trees are sprouting anew..

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Old old song.   It appears in one of the world’s most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978.   Written in 13th-century England, (c1275), probably by the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question also contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map, medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs.   

But the key text is this one :  the Featured imageMiddle English rota “Sumer Is Icumen In“, a composition for six voices to be sung in the round, written in square notation on a five-line red stave.

The manuscript is the oldest known musical round (rota) with English words.  Singers, however, can choose between the Middle English lyrics in black ink which celebrate the arrival of spring and the rising of the sap, or the lyrics in Latin (Perspice Christicola) written in red ink which are religious.  The tune remains the same.  This double version was not unusual in those days.  A straight holy song and an earthy secular song using the same tune.  Which came first ? We shall probably never know.

I first heard this song in a rehearsal room in Liverpool in 1986.   I’d finished Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre (written by Bob Carlton, started life at Liverpool Everyman)  in the spring of 1985, and then talked the director Glen Walford into casting me as the lead in Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman the following year.   I walked up the stairs to her Old Compton St flat in Soho and said I wanted to play the tragic Scottish king.    It was a fateful move.    Little did I know that the entire experience would put me off doing theatre forever.

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After Macbeth, which is one of the nightmare memories of my life as an actor, I did one more play at the RSC in London, then there is a gap of nearly 20 years before I decided to do Mike Packer‘s brilliant punk comedy The Dysfunkshonalz at The Bush Theatre in 2009.  And I don’t see myself treading the boards again anytime soon.  No, the very woman who had seen something in me to allow me to play the lead in Macbeth with no previous experience of playing Shakespeare, was the same woman who would drive me out of the theatre with her ugly working methods and foul personality.   She wouldn’t allow any of the actors to hold the script during rehearsal – she would read the lines out loud and we had to copy her.   Loudly.  It was murder.  When I asked her at what point do Lady Macbeth and her husband decide to kill King Duncan? she answered “Don’t keep bothering me with all that psychological bollocks“.    I felt isolated from the rest of the cast who were almost all acolytes of hers, although they bore me no ill-will, I moved out of my digs into the Adelphi Hotel and spent the entire rehearsal period trying to learn the lines in my hotel room, and making a scrapbook for Rita Wolf my girlfriend.   I did actually call my agent Michael Foster during rehearsal and said perhaps I should drop out of the production.  I was hating everything.   He advised me not to, so I just buckled down and got on with it.

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Once we’d opened I took back the performance line by line, night by night.  Walford would give us all notes in the afternoons, but I stopped listening and ploughed my own lonely furrow.  It was already a high enough peak to climb and somehow I’d doubled it by falling out with the director, and isolating myself from most of the cast.   Much joy was had when one of the weird sisters fell ill and couldn’t go on, so Glen the director had to appear in costume and make-up as a witch.   The fear in her eyes when she spoke to me onstage was like sweet nectar from heaven.

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Many Liverpool actors came to see the performance and hated it, and me.    Ken Sharrock, a scouser and one of my mates from Berkoff’s “West” also came and told me that he couldn’t see what I was doing.   Until I came to the front.  “She’s done you Ralph, she’s taken your confidence” he said.   I carried on improving.   My feelings for Liverpool were not affected – I love the city, my favourite in the UK.    And it didn’t affect my feelings for the play either – my favourite Shakespeare.   It just all should have been better.   My father came across from Huddersfield towards the end of the run when I’d pretty much reclaimed the role for myself in its entirety and he enjoyed my performance and was proud of me.   That’s all I needed to make it all feel worthwhile.   At the last-night party the director got drunk enough to tell me that “people come here to see my productions, not to watch some Joint Stock actor wanking about onstage“.    But strangely this particular post is a happy memory of that time, perhaps because it is a musical one.

Awe blateth after lomb louth after calue cu

The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf

The musical director for ‘Macbeth‘ was Paddy Cunneen, a tall straggly bespectacled enthusiast who whipped our unruly gang of actors into musical shape.   His girlfriend Andrea Gibb (now a successful writer) was one of the weird sisters.   And one of the things Paddy did was teach us this song, using the Middle English as written above. We sang it every day.

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It’s a merry little tune and the words are faintly rude –  Sumer Is Icumen In is an important historical song but it is also famous for being the first written recorded example of the word fart in the English language.  In Olde Wessex English it is “averteth“.   Apparently  :

Bulluc sterteth buc averteth ludu sing cucu

Bullock prances, billy-goat farts, loudly sing cuckoo !

Actors love a dirty joke so once this had been translated we were all onside.   We sang it as a round every morning.  This is normal for companies in rehearsal – there are various warm-up techniques, bonding exercises and vocal flexes, and singing a round achieves all three at the same time.  Previous songs I’d sung in rehearsal room rounds were London’s Burning and Rose Rose Red.  Readers may remember Frére Jaques (one syllable per word in French but always pronounced Frerer Jaquer in English…) from primary school.

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I don’t actually have this song in my musical collection, but online trawling has given me a number of interpretations.  The Hilliard Ensemble sang it as a standard round and I’ll post it to illustrate the effect of singing it in the round, but it is very strangely sprightly, polite and bourgeouis.  I rather suspect ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson has much the better spirit when he sings it on his live LP 1000 Years Of Popular Music – track one, naturally.   A strange modern translation was provided by playwright Anton Shaffer in his screenplay for The Wicker Man (1973) and sung by the islanders as they burn Edward Woodward at the film’s pagan climax.  It’s a powerful cinematic moment.

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I find it rather fantastic that people are still singing a song which is probably 1000 years old.  It was a religious tune, a celebration of summer, and possibly a sexual innuendo (cuckoo being a multi-layered word in English).   It reflects a dark period in my life, but I take heart that even in these darkest hours, some light can shine.

The Hilliard Ensemble :

Richard Thompson :

The Wicker Man :

My Pop Life #107 : Desiderata – Les Crane

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Desiderata   –   Les Crane

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story…

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Whilst I am unable to find the release date for this single, it was huge in our house.   Our house being a three bedroom council estate new build on the outside edge of East Sussex market town Hailsham.   Facing north towards Herstmonceux Observatory.   A field where we played football.   A back garden which felt permanently in the shade.   We had coal delivered directly into a hole in the back wall which was the coal shed.   We’d take it in turns to fill the coal scuttle which was shaped like a cone, then carry it through to the living room where all the paraphernalia of the fireplace were present :  shovel, poker, brush and tongs.   Proper fire.   Proper chimney that got swept probably once.   If ever.   TV in the corner.   Two settees ?   Or was it one settee and two armchairs ?   Milk delivered in bottles every day onto the doorstep.  Sometimes the silver foil tops would be pecked before we took the bottles in – by blue tits famously who wanted the cream which had risen to the top of the bottle.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater
and lesser persons than yourself.

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“the front of the house, and you can just see a bit of the side”

Next door was Monique and her two kids : Tim, who was my brother Paul’s age (12 going on 13 in 1972) and Joanna who was younger, perhaps 10.    Carl, the kid’s dad was “inside”.   On the other side was an old lady whose name has been forgotten and her fully grown son.  Can’t remember his name either.   But one day we heard that he been “fiddling about” with Joanna, so we weren’t to make friends with him.   He was “a bit funny”.   And that was that.   It was, as people never seem to tire of saying “a different time”.    Sure was.    I am forever grateful that I was never “fiddled about” with, by anyone, and never put into care by the Social Workers -despite the regular family upheavals and hospital stays that mum was experiencing during this whole period.    It was a long walk into the town centre, to the bus stop, to Polegate Station to take the train, to Lewes.   I was at school in Lewes.   It was an hour’s journey at least.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble,
it’s a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

By the time I was in the 4th year, moving into the 5th year and O-levels I was buying singles regularly, and LPs on special occasions.   1972 was a major year for me as a music fan.   A brief look at the charts confirms the incredible variety of music that people were buying in vast numbers – a record needed to sell many hundreds of thousands of copies even to reach the top 20.   Desiderata by Les Crane peaked at number 8 in late March 1972 – Harry Nilsson was at #1 with a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You“, also present in the top 20 were Gilbert O’ Sullivan “Alone Again, Naturally”, Argent “Hold Your Head Up”, Paul Simon “Mother & Child Reunion”, and Michael Jackson “Got To Be There”.   There was virtually no ‘crap pop’ – The New Seekers, Middle Of The Road and Englebert Humperdinck being the blots on an otherwise pristine and glorious pop landscape:  American Pie, Bernadette, Heart Of Gold, Say You Don’t Mind, Have You Seen Her.  Yes I romanticise, I see through rose-tinted ear-plugs, and none more so than Desiderata.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

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What a strange and glorious thing it is.  A man reads a poem, Desiderata (Latin : things to be desired) a series of aphorisms, epigrams and generally perspicacious observations on LIFE, THE UNIVERSE and EVERYTHING while a female choir joins him for the loosely-defined “chorus” :

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars

You have a right to be here…

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…

And then the narrator would be off again with his pearls of wisdom, his insights into getting through it all.  Les Crane, though I didn’t know it at the time, was a radio broadcaster and one time talk-show host who was himself an interesting mover and shaker within the counter-culture during the late 1960s.  His short lived Talk Show lasted just 14 episodes in 1964 without denting The Carson Show, but the list of guests speaks for itself : Bob Dylan, who rarely appeared on TV;  Malcolm X,  Martin Luther King,  Richard Burton,  George Wallace, Robert Kennedy, Muhammed Ali.    The Rolling Stones first appearance on US TV was on his show in 1964.   Crane, who tried acting at one point and who won a Grammy for ‘Best Spoken Word’ for Desiderata, reads the prose poem with a kindly gravitas which Paul and I found hilarious.  Fred Werner provided the musical accompaniment, which was of its time, think for example of The Congregation Softly Whispering I Love You or Aquarius by the Fifth Dimension, two beautiful records.

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Les Crane

Although we didn’t fully admit it at the time, we were mesmerised by this song.  Paul and I in particular took the royal piss out of it, probably because it got under our skin so effectively.

Be yourself.
Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

When younger brother Andrew (who was 8 years old at the time) wanted to come into our bedroom, or made a mistake with a word, or anything stupid like that, we were merciless.  “You are a Child Of The Universe” we would pronounce, (without the solace of “you have a right to be here“), in fact I seem to recall we would deliver our own version of this judgement, as follows “You are a Child Of The Universe : You Have No Right to be Here”.   Meaning our bedroom.   Or even anywhere.   We were cruel.   It was a cycle of cruelty.  Andrew would find his way into our bedroom when we weren’t there.   He would find a plastic Airfix kit, carefully built from component parts and glued together according to the printed instructions, usually an aeroplane from the second World War, wheels that actually turned, a cockpit you could see into, decals shiny on the wings and fuselage, painted with a tiny paint brush from tiny paint pots the size of a thimble, all mounted on a stand on the chest of drawers.

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Andrew used to like to play with the Airfix kits and break them.   Maybe he pretended they could fly and threw them across the room.   But I’d come home from school and find pieces of plastic littering the floor, smashed aeroplane bits.   So he wasn’t allowed in our bedroom.    He was in fact a child of the universe and he had no right to be there.   I don’t think I beat him up ever.   The scars would be deeper and for life, rather than bruises for a few days.   The cycle of cruelty manifested in other areas too.    Football.   Andrew was in goal, Paul and I would fire shots at him.   Penalties mainly.   In the back field.   Forever.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit
to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

We thought Desiderata was funny because it was, but the words stuck, buried deep in the teenage brain.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

For years everyone thought it was an anonymous poem from the Middle Ages, found in a church in Baltimore by the Reverend Frederick Kates and dating from 1628.  In fact the date referred to the church’s founding.  The poem Desiderata was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana who stopped working aged 40 to write.   It has been intoned by a variety of characters, notably Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock on a 1968 LP calling it “Spock Thoughts“.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

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Max Ehrmann

It is one of those pieces that people can recite.  The eternal truth contained in the lines makes it feel Medieval or a translation from Buddha or Confucius.   No.   A lawyer from Indiana.    Everyone is at the centre of the universe.  Clearly, the truth is all around us.   And for me, as a non-religious man who rejects the pious the righteous and the pontificating peace of religion, this is as near as I get to spirituality.   It’s like a survival manifesto, with kindness at its core.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.